Libraries Are Safe Spaces during the Summer Heat
Libraries serve as cooling centers in the summer, offering a tremendous service to those who need them.
Most parts of the United States are subject to sweltering weather at certain times in mid-June through mid-September. And for some Sunbelt states, the summer heat can last even longer. Of course, many homes now have central air-conditioning and air-conditioned cars to stay comfortable. But AC is expensive to install and operate, so low-income households can’t always afford it.
Did you know that many public libraries serve as cooling centers during summer?
Extreme summer heat is a serious health concern. Not only is it uncomfortable, but it also makes sleeping difficult and undercuts productivity. Dehydration and heat stroke become possibilities when the temperature hits ninety degrees or higher.
That’s why, along with designated community heat shelters, public libraries assume the role of cooling facilities where and when needed. To become this type of refuge, libraries partner with local city governments, emergency operation centers, and health departments to provide places for residents, especially the elderly, poor, or otherwise vulnerable, to come inside to cool off. And, of course, they are always welcome.
For instance, the city’s Department of Public Health approached the Philadelphia Free Library (FLP) to open cooling centers in high-need areas, such as those with large senior populations or residents living below the poverty line. Who uses public libraries to stay cool in summer?
The “public” in public libraries means that virtually anyone can use and benefit from the facilities, provided they comport themselves appropriately. Mary Beth Revels, director of the St. Joseph Public Library in Missouri, told Library Journal, “The library has offered impromptu programming during extreme weather events, such as crafts for kids, coloring for all ages, and family-friendly movies.”
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The Elderly and People with Disabilities
Air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter, libraries are comfortable and cozy enough for senior visitors to spend endless hours, no matter the time of year. Besides tables, most libraries are decorated with plants and comfortable chairs, all of which help create an atmosphere where seniors can enjoy much-needed relaxation.
It’s well known that social engagement keeps seniors emotionally healthy. So libraries nationwide offer workshops and classes for all ages, with some specifically designed to accommodate seniors with technology skills and other learning opportunities. Some libraries coordinate programs with nursing homes and senior living communities to ensure issues like limited transportation or physical mobility don’t keep their residents from all the library offers.
Many larger libraries also provide dedicated technologies (with accompanying instructions) for seniors and others with disabilities. For example, those with declining eyesight can borrow audiobooks. Others without home connectivity have access to laptop computers (sometimes with portable wifi devices) and other convenient technology—all while enjoying a cool indoor summer at the library!
Homeless and Low-Income People
Anyone who works at or frequents an urban public library expects to see evidence of homeless people before they even walk in the door — for example, people sitting outside with bags of belongings before the building opens. When they enter, they probably use the washrooms to freshen up, then maybe doze off in an upholstered chair — thankful for the cool air.
Some, however, arrive drunk or high. People without housing might be rude to other patrons or behave erratically. So, security escorts them back out to the hot pavement. But on a scorching hot day, they might become dehydrated, suffer heat stroke, or even die. So, what should you do?
Chip Ward, a former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, says that they emphasize to their staff the importance of responding to people’s behavior — not their appearance—and not their status but their behavior. “We do have, however, one standard of civic behavior that’s expected in public, and if you don’t meet it, you can’t be there . . . I think the problem that librarians have is that the people in front of them are very often mentally ill. We are acting as auxiliary social workers.”
It’s a tough decision. But you might be better off calling the police or paramedics. That way, the errant individual can avoid the heat while their issue is handled.
Kids and Teens Cooling Off
Parents often bring younger children to the library in summer, whether for planned activities like storytimes or treasure hunts, the cool air, or just to leave their homes for a while. Plus, they can borrow books and other items to enjoy when they return to their residence.
For teens, summer can be quiet and lonely. Friends are away, so most activities are on hold until the new school year begins. So, libraries provide a relaxed, quiet place to hang out that isn’t home or work. There’s the internet and books to read. There are also teen programs, including crafting, gaming, social time, and various classes. For teens with challenging home lives, the library offers peace and safety.
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How Do Libraries and Their Employees Deal with the Summer Heat?
Most librarians and other staff know their building(s) enough to predict the indoor weather in summer. Still, it’s not just about the temperature setting. Instead, it’s factors like library spaces (e.g., open vs. closed-in), the number of warm bodies in the building at one time, the number of computers and other “hot” technology in use simultaneously, etc., that bring out the sweat.
What about libraries that lack air-conditioning?
Most public libraries, especially newer ones, were built with central air-conditioning. So, those patrons and staff can spend their days enjoying the cool tranquility modern technology offers. However, employees and patrons must plan for the summer heat in older library buildings with little more than electric fans and the occasional window AC unit.
What are some suggestions for staying cool in the library?
We recommend the following for either scenario:
- Dress in layers in case you’re too cold or too warm.
- Try to avoid hot, sun-drenched spots and settle down in the shade.
- Bring a small personal fan.
- Have cold water ready at hand.
And think cold thoughts by reading about cold places and situations. It’s been known to work.
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